Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

Hugh Marsh
interview by Jason Gross
(August 2021)

PSF: What was your impression of Jon's work before you met him?

HM: In the summer of 1980 a trumpet player friend of mine played me Possible Musics and I was absolutely floored. I was just beginning to more deeply explore violin processing at the time but this was something other. Jon's marriage of his beautiful acoustic sound and electronics was the pinnacle for me. I've been chasing that sonic fingerprint ever since.

PSF: How did you get involved in working with Jon?

HM: In the fall of 2005, I simply looked up Jon's address in the Los Angeles phone book. I'd been traveling to L.A. to work on movie soundtracks with a number of different film composers a few times a year and I finally decided to send a DAT tape of some of my own explorations to Jon.

When I got back to Toronto, he called me and asked if I'd like be a part of his then-upcoming European tour. The band was Jon, myself, bassist Peter Freeman and percussionist Steve Shehan.

PSF: How would you describe his method of composing and working in the studio?

HM: Open and focused simultaneously. Fellini-esque.

In 2015, when I was living in Los Angeles there were basically weekly recording sessions at Rick Cox's studio in Venice. Overriding everything was Jon's 'pentimento' concept.

Jumping off points could include anything from a 25-year-old trumpet solo improv on micro cassette tape to a breakbeat culled from a 10 year old European tour board mix or a 40-year-old master. Guitarist Rick Cox, ever the sonic alchemist would spit out various granular gems that we would all improvise over in real time. On Listening to Pictures, the core group was Jon, Rick Cox, John Von Seggern and myself for the most part. Seeing Through Sound features a much wider pool of beautiful players.

Jon would take the Ableton files home and work on sculpting them there and then bring new forms back to Rick. Wash, rinse, repeat.

PSF: How was it different playing with him live?

HM: Interesting question. In the live performance scenario, I was handed a definitive role.

It fluctuated between being a "ghost" of Jon, playing a musical motif tag with him or creating a dense harmonic cloud pad for him to dance over. In the studio, pretty much anything was up for grabs from pizzicato rhythm figures to more aggressive sound effect stabs. In the touring quartet I was a part of, I was the only one not running a laptop. It should also be mentioned that Arnaud Mercier, Jon's front of house mixer, essentially made the quartet a quintet.

He had his own software that he developed allowing him to sample any one of us during live performances, reprocess us and then feed that musical material back to us on stage to interact with.

PSF: What differences did you see in working with him on Listening to Pictures and Seeing Through Sound?

HM: Both records were created from the same series of recording sessions over the arc of a few years (2014- 2017) and were originally slated to be released simultaneously I believe, so the approach to the recording process was essentially the same. The palette of players was much larger on LTP.

Once there was a decision to stagger the releases, I think Jon's own mixing reinvestigations for Seeing Through Sound became a little more microscopic than its predecessor: Jon went back to the material on STS and was constantly re-editing and re-mixing it, looking for it to stand apart from LTP.

PSF: What do you think bassist/co-producer Peter Freeman, who recently passed away, added to Jon's work?

HM: Peter and I never physically recorded together on any of Jon's albums. We were both part of his 2006 touring quartet. Certainly, over past last decade, I would say both Peter and guitarist Rick Cox could be thought of as Jon's go to sonic cinematographers. By that I mean they both allowed him the luxury of letting him see his vision realized through their respective lens. They are both such creative and giving creatures and great sounding boards for Jon;s directorial vision.

PSF: What effect do you think he had on your work after playing with him?

HM: It's meant everything to me. Besides being fortunate enough to have played and recorded with Jon, I lived with him for six months in 2015. Our conversations, musical and otherwise were all encompassing and invaluable. "Notice what you're noticing" springs to mind. I've held on to that.

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